City Life: TOKYO: Pizza greets the Diet's new dawn

WHEN THE Japanese parliament held its first ever British-style Prime Minister's Question Time the other week, the excitement in Nagatacho, Tokyo's equivalent of Westminster, was palpable.

On the television news, presenters explained the background to the British system against film footage of a finger-jabbing William Hague and a sound- track of baying back-benchers. Newspapers editorialised about their hopes for a new era of accountability. Finally, the two antagonists stepped up to the podium.

On one side was the Democratic Party leader, Yukio Hatoyama, the most prominent among Japan's reformist politicians. Locking horns with him was the Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi, known as "the Ox" for his unflappable stubborness. For the first time, a Japanese PM would be facing questions without prepared notes and without knowing the question in advance. What thunderbolt would Mr Hatoyama hurl? Like a gladiator in the arena, he fixed the Prime Minister in the eye and spoke.

"What did you have for breakfast this morning?" he demanded, adding. "I had pizza." Swift as a bullet train, came the answer. "A Japanese-style breakfast," retorted Mr Obuchi. "Not pizza."

For nearly half an hour, the exchange continued, a Pythonesque jumble of meaningless questions, fumbled answers and missed opportunities. Even Japanese MPs seem to agree that, so far at least, Japan's experiment with British-style debate has not been much of a success. "Compared to Westminster or the US Congress the Japanese system is very weird," says Taro Kono, a junior MP in Mr Obuchi's Liberal Democratic Party.

"Parliament is not functioning, and these changes have the potential to be important. But we're just not doing what we're supposed to be doing. Hatoyama's first question was a big disappointment."

In the 19th century, the original Imperial Diet was modelled on the Houses of Parliament and, superficially, Japanese and British democracy have plenty in common - prime ministers, cabinets, upper and lower houses. But beneath Japan's parliamentary veneer hums a very different political machine.

"It's just like the old Communist system," says Mr Kono, who lived in Poland during the Eighties. "It's very ceremonial, everyone knows the result beforehand, and the real power broking goes on deep behind the scenes. I used to tell my Polish friends that they didn't have a democracy, but these days I wonder whether we do either."

The real business of Japanese politics takes place not in Nagatacho, but in Akasaka, a neighbouring area of expensive restaurants and exclusive geisha houses.

It is here that the leaders of Japan's parties meet to hammer out policies which are smoothed out and drafted into law by bureaucrats, and rubber stamped in the Diet. "The Diet is just a ritual," says Jiro Yamaguchi, a professor of politics at Hokkaido University.

For politicians who have never drafted a law or posed a parliamentary question, there is a lot of catching up to do. A former civil servant named Masao Miyamoto published a famous expose in which he recounted a conversation with a senior bureaucrat.

The man explained that politics was simply too important a business to be left to politicians. "Can you really imagine today's lawmakers entrusted with the job of lawmaking?" he asked. "It would be the end of Japan!"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine